I am happy to release our new CD Prelude&Maqam
on 24 October 2022

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digital release on all major streaming platforms

6 Preludes for Cello Solo by J.S.Bach
6 new pieces by Damascus- Berlin for Cello and Oud
Recording, editing: Volker Greve
Photo: Daniel Biskup
Graphik: Marnie Schaefer

interview and presentation by Maria on


Damaskus-Berlin came about as a duo, when the critically acclaimed German cellist Maria Magdalena Wiesmaier met Nabil Hilaneh following his escape from Syria in 2015. Nabil is an award-winning and outstanding player of the oud, the classical Arab eleven- or thirteen-stringed instrument that in some respects resembles the European lute. In the beginning their only common language was music. Both musicians were curious about the musical culture and sound world of the other, and as a result, Maria be- gan to learn the Arabic musical modes, the maqamat, consisting of eight principle and up to one hundred secondary note-rows, or melody types, each of which imply both a particular aesthetic, as well as certain melodic, modulatory and improvisatory structures that necessarily follow from that particular maqam. She began doing so through pure improvisation. Over time notated music was incorporated into this process. Another corner stone in this dialogue were the six cello suites of J.S. Bach. Maria’s widely praised per- formances have always included this composer. Indeed she began learning the cello at the age of six, in order to play these pieces, and much of her impressive career has been devoted to setting these great works within different contexts: architecture, literature, new music, improvisation and now composition. The two musicians asked themselves how they might establish a connection between the Wes- tern system of major and minor keys and the Arabic maqamat. They approached this in two ways. 1) Intuitively, by finding a maqam, the mood and atmosphere of which most suitably matched a western key; and 2) in terms of musical content, modulatory intersections and parallels across the two musical cultures. Thus the six keys of Bach’s six suites were each linked to an appropriate maqam in the following pairs: C major – Nakriz; C minor – Bayat; G major – Nawa Ather; D minor – Hijaz Kar; E flat major – Nahawand; D major – Aough.

An equally important connection was the tradition of improvisation in both musical cultures. The Arabic one is essentially an oral tradition handed on from teacher to pupil over many generations, indeed over millennia, where improvisation is at the heart of performance and is central to a musician’s creativity. This was also the case in Europe over many centuries, far more so than the average Western concert-goer may imagine: Written note-values, from the Renaissance through to the late Baroque periods, were in different ways points of departure for often dazzling improvisatory ornamentation by both instrumentalists

and singers. Much evidence exists for this, including for example Bach’s indications of the intricate im- provisation he himself expected of a performer. (See f.ex. Bach’s addendum to the A minor English Suite’s Sarabande). The reputations of practically all the great European musicians from the high Baroque to the early Romantic periods, were promoted and consolidated by public demonstrations of these musicians’ ability to fantasise freely on a given theme. This applied as much to Mozart or Liszt, as to Handel and Bach and many others. It was an assumed and necessary accomplishment of all serious musicians in the West for many centuries.

For the listener it is essential to remember that both musical cultures have their own unique procedures with a particular key or maqam. How one plays and listens is determined by these points of departure, including both rhythms and the shape of a melody. The aim of this recording is to allow its audience a revelatory listening experience, one of enrichment, an opening up to, and an encounter with, another musical world. In these pieces the musicians try to create something new that combines both musicians’ points of departure. This means that some of these pieces carry a very oriental imprint, such as Aough and Bayat, with quarter tones and free improvisation, whereas there are other sections containing a variety of underlying harmonies. Pedal points, so fundamental in Bach’s cello suites, are equally important in the tradition of maqamat.

Viewed historically it is impressive and sobering to note that the maqamat (frommaqam,‘location’, ‘place where something is constructed’) are extremely ancient and found across many cultures in the Middle East and North Africa. There even appears to be an Ugaritic attestation, found in Northwest Syria, possi- bly dating back to 1500 BC. Several ancient systems of church modes, such as the Syrian and Nestorian ones, show profound connections to the maqamat. The current distribution of this broad musical language covers not only the Arab world, but also encompasses the related musical cultures of Iran and Turkey. Much central Asian art music draws extensively from this culture and one can even find parallels to – and influences from – the maqamat within the vast treasury of Hindustani (North Indian) ragas.

Prelude & Maqam is the first joint CD recorded by Nabil and Maria.

David Christophersen, Cambridge 2022